SAIIER 2016:The Learning Community

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Supportive Learning Teacher Training
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Baking English
The Learning Community


Introduction

This year The Learning Community (TLC) worked with 33 Aurovilian and Newcomer children and their families. We continue to use Base Camp as our center, with 2 main classroom buildings and an art center, while also spending much time in other communities and outdoor spaces in and around the wider community.

Our programme includes focused and structured classes, where academic subjects are covered, and through which social and learning skills are addressed, as well as more unstructured sessions, where children are given the opportunity to steer their own explorations, with the help of willing facilitators, when needed. Children’s schedules are tailor-made to suit their individual interests, needs, levels and learning styles; and the adults' learning and deepening is encouraged through group sessions, sharings and individual processes.

Highlights of the year

Metal project (ages 11-14)

In this project we explored the properties of different metals, their uses, and the range of different metals that surround us. By investigating a material that is so ubiquitous that we don’t tend to give it much thought, I hoped to open the children’s eyes to being curious about our surroundings. We realized just how common metals are when we actually counted how many objects made of or containing metals we use per day (around 40!). While studying when and how humans first used metals, we echoed them by embossing symmetrical designs on brass plates. Using household metal objects we compared their properties such as conductivity, flexibility, magnetic attraction, and melting points. Through watching documentaries we learned that metals can be highly reactive, such as the explosive properties of sodium and potassium, in contrast to the stable, unreactive nature of gold. A short excursion led us to realize that metals are not just ‘out there’: our bodies are full of them, requiring them for most functions and acquiring them through the food we eat. However, we cannot just swallow a nail – the iron needs to be absorbed by plants from the earth, and enter our food chain in that way.

Our understandings of metals as hard, heavy and solid were seriously challenged when we worked with a young French volunteer, Kevin, on forging and welding a steel sculpture, first at Youth Centre then at Sacred Groves. The children were amazed that just through the application of high heat, this seemingly unyielding material became soft under our hands; how a material known mainly for square, structural building seemed to be infused with movement, life and beauty. While working with dangerous tools, high temperatures and requiring quite a bit of strength, the children gained insights into a way of working that ensured safety, care for the materials and tools.

The metal project continued outside the class – Johnny built a forge with the children in Fertile and we started forging there, too. A bronze caster comes once a week to instruct a group of children in the lost wax technique, and we have cast some beautiful pieces in aluminum. The metal work in Fertile opened up metal work to other children who had not been part of the metal project, some as young as eight years old.

Metals are used everywhere. Some remain for many years where they are placed, such as in buildings, bridges and cars; others, however, reach the end of their usefulness to us very quickly. Or have they? What happens to that can of beans, the lid of a jar, the broken pot, after we have used them? Do we reuse metals? How? From watching a shocking documentary about ship-breaking in Bangladesh, to experiencing our local metal recycling yards, the story of metals continues, and recycling does not always mean that it is ecological.

We visited Eco Service to understand how many different categories of waste there are, and learned that metal waste is divided into at least 8 categories. We realized the importance of segregating waste in the home, and followed the metal waste trail to a big scrap dealer in Pondicherry. The children had collected metal waste from their own homes and we were able to sell this waste to the scrap dealer – the children realized that also waste has a value, and learned which materials are more valuable for recycling.

As a final outing we visited the Kurumbapet Rubbish dump. It was an unforgettable experience for us all – the stench of smoke reached us before we were even close to the dump. There we interacted with waste pickers who burnt waste to extract tiny amounts of metal – the most valuable waste – producing acrid smoke in the process. The dump was an eye-opener to all of us about the importance of segregating waste at home, as well as making us reconsider which kind of items we buy in the first place.



Earth Studies project (ages 11-14)

The aim of this project was to enhance and deepen the kids’ understanding of the earth as a dynamic planet, and to explore the ways in which large-scale earth movements occur, how they are measured and how they impact on people’s lives. We began the Earth Studies sessions with the kids inspecting a variety of large photographic prints of actual earthquake and tsunami damage and volcanic eruptions. We asked the kids what they thought was going on in these scenes and what questions they had about them. Some of these questions were central to the elaboration of the project.

Themes: The themes which we explored together were:

  • the earth’s internal structure and the theory of plate tectonics;
  • the nature of the waves generated in seismic events and what they can tell us about the earth;
  • how to read a seismogram;
  • triangulation of seismic data to determine the epicenter of an earthquake;
  • understanding different scales for measuring earthquakes, based on the amount of shaking as measured on a seismograph and the intensity which people feel and record;
  • collapsing buildings and structures as the major cause of loss of life in earthquakes;
  • how buildings respond in earthquakes, with attention to wave frequencies and the phenomenon of resonance;
  • earthquake-resistant engineering;
  • tsunami generation, damage and survivor stories.

Methods: Our methods in this course were centered on the idea that effective learning is inextricably associated with having an experience (beyond theoretical knowledge), and being able to make connections between apparently disconnected phenomena. We wanted to replace ‘teaching about something’ with enabling the kids to perform roles. For example, instead of teaching kids about seismology we aimed for the kids to become seismologists (in a simplified but still real-world form) by interpreting actual seismological data to carry out tasks that seismologists would do. One assignment resulted in a certificate as a ‘virtual seismologist’. We encouraged the kids to become engineers through experimenting with models of buildings and modifying them for earthquake resilience, albeit in simplified conditions.

We did a lot of hands-on activities and modeling to help frame the key understandings. These included:

  • classroom enactments of wave types;
  • experiments on convection patterns and non-Newtonian fluids;
  • interpretation of actual observations made by people in an earthquake;
  • demonstrations of resonance with the swing at Base Camp and with models of buildings;
  • experiments in designing earthquake resistence structures using simplified models.

We drew on raw video clips, animations, live earthquake data, and documentaries to help explicate, link, inform and stimulate thinking about seismic events and how they impact on people.

Demonstration: At the Open-House event in April we created an interactive Seismic Zone. There were four stations:

  1. Quake Catcher Network, through which our laptop was connected to other devices around the world to record seismic data as a citizen science network; live earthquake display.
  2. Building Oscillation Seismic Simulation: a place to explore the impact of resonance at varying frequencies with model buildings made out of stiff card of different heights.
  3. Earthquake Resistant Engineering: a place to explore the effects of bracing, base isolation and mass damping on model buildings (wooden blocks) and their relative resistance to shaking.
  4. Record Your Seismic Footprint: using the accelerometer on a smartphone to record and replay the seismic event (vibrations) caused by jumping off a table onto a wooden floor. We used the Seismograph app for Android.

Thinking about learning, learning about thinking: Our very first session explored kids’ perceptions of learning and their experience of learning in their lives. The key components that we elicited are: you learn something if you want to; it often entails struggle; you often need the help of others; a sign of having learnt something is the ability to apply it; you feel satisfaction with the new skill or understanding that has been acquired. We want to develop the theme of how we learn and how we can make this learning ‘visible’ during the coming year.

Service Week (ages 9-13)

In additional to our regular ongoing activities, we undertook a week of ‘service learning’ where each child chose a unit in the larger community of Auroville and worked there for a week. 'Community' implies a two-way movement: what the learners get from the community, and what the learners give to the community. Every aspect of the community is an integral part of the learning program. Farms, forests, parks, shops, services, units, the streets and the environment provide learning opportunities, facilities and services for self-learners. At the same time, learning becomes a service to the community as future citizens become involved in the local community taking part in any or all community activities.

The community provides a context for this learning, and community members serve as resources and partners in teaching. Helping in the community is seen as people-to-people shared learning. The "teachers" are community members of all ages. The teachers are not necessarily schoolteachers. They are motivated people who have acquired knowledge and skills and are willing to share these with children. This way of relating also fosters professional mentorship, as students make contact with working professionals in the community.

The service week offers a way to extend children’s attention beyond the classroom to the world as it actually is, and prepares children to understand and respect their community.

This year the children were placed in: Botanical Gardens, Shradhanjali, Tamarind Bakery, AuroOrchard, Naturellement, Miniature, Eco Femme, Well Café, Abri Puncture Service, Auroville Bakery, Bamboo Centre, Aha Kindergarten, Discipline Farm, Youth Center, Baraka, Nandanam Kindergarten, Matrimandir petals, Free Store, Mandala Pottery, PTDC, Auroville Library, Maroma, Le Morgan, and Solitude Farm.



Water project (ages 7-11)

This year the younger children worked with the project theme “water”. They studied many different aspects of water. Exploring the Earth’s land and water, with the help of a huge floor map of the world, the children discovered how much of our planet is covered with water. They learned the names of the oceans and continents, the large rivers running through each continent. They learned to identify different land and water forms, such as peninsula, bay and isthmus. Through stories, films, and groups work, the children developed an understanding of the water cycle.

The children’s great interest in animals steered the project to a study of life in water. The children explored this through individual projects, films and guest facilitators. A visit to the Ashram aquarium in Pondi was organized. They went to the beach to collect seashells that they cleaned and identified. They also saw films on the plastic that has been dumped in the oceans, and the harm that it is causing for life in and around the oceans. Also in this context, the children cleaned plastic from the beach, which then extended to a cleanup of our Auroville roadsides on Earth Day.



Experiencing sound and music (ages 7-10)

This year the two younger groups had weekly music classes, where in addition to note-reading a variety of activities took place. We sang many songs from all over the world, and went from unison to canon and first practice of harmony singing, as confidence and independent singing skills grew throughout the year. Some of the children decided to take their recorder study to the next level, so during third term we organized a focused study time for this group.

Rhythm was explored through rhythm-maths, rhythm as part of life, body percussion, rhythm raps and as apotheoses we enjoyed a visit of the Svaram team who brought instruments to explore rhythm together.

A highlight was the “Peter and the Wolf” project, where we explored music and instruments as a means of communication that has its own voice and character. The kids made their own musical play where they developed their own characters, and where they were matched to an instrument (thanks to skilful musicians Kaeridwyn and François). A story evolved with the children as silent actors, allowing their musical instrumental partner to tell the sound part of the story for them.



Gardening and cooking (ages 10-11)

Last year, we saw that when children are involved in the harvest and cooking of their own meal, they are more open and curious to taste the less known/popular vegetables and millets. So this year, we wanted to emphasize this aspect. And as part of the research on the Auroville multicultural richness in the food sector – from growing to processing – we had a weekly workshop with around 7 kids aged 10-11 years. A typical morning would include: weeding, planting, watering, mulching and harvesting, in our Base Camp vegetable garden for around an hour. After snack we would prepare/cook 2 or 3 dishes to be added to our regular lunch.

During the first sessions of this workshop, we researched and brainstormed about food in general. For example, we made a mind map around food, discovering the links between growing, processing and consuming and the places our food comes from. We also studied the pictures of families with their weekly food assortment (from “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats”) and we went to PTDC to read the labels of the packed food.

On some days, we organized a morning work/visit on a farm. We went to Annapurna, Samridhi, Buddha Garden and AuroOrchard.

During the cooking sessions, we often invited a guest cook to share new ideas, skills and conviviality. In the first months, we proposed recipes based on what was available in our garden and in Auroville. Our aim was to use local produce as much as possible. The children formed teams and followed the recipes under the guidance of an adult. Close to the end of the year, we gave the children the opportunity to write and cook their own recipes using ingredients available on the table that day. We were astonished by their creativity, competence and accuracy. Over the following weeks, we improvised most of our dishes, and some children were even able to prepare and cook fully on their own.

We are planning to continue these gardening and cooking sessions next year, even more intensively – several times a week so that more children can participate – as it is a wonderful applied-learning experience.



Baking English (ages 10-13)

The Baking English exploration has been offered in TLC’s programme for the past 4 years. The class uses baking as a medium for developing skills related to English language development, as well as takes advantage of other learning opportunities that arise throughout the course of the sessions, such as exploring mathematical concepts including weight, volume and equations. Hands-on baking sessions allow the children to practice following written instructions and working with a partner (delegating tasks, sharing responsibilities). We have explored various genres of creative writing, as well as different elements of English grammar.

At the end of each term the students are given the opportunity to invent and bake their own recipes, documenting the recipes in their notebooks. The products are proudly shared with the rest of The Learning Community! The students also compile a Baking English book, which includes all of the recipes attempted during the sessions (with photographs taken by the children during each class), as well as a selection of their poems and stories created during the course of the year.

(See also the separate report on Baking English.)



Field trips

Field trips and wilderness experiences play an important part of TLC’s educational framework. Wilderness experiences embody the values of tenacity, responsibility, self-discipline, and compassion. These experiences strengthen self-confidence, improve relationships and encourage good judgement, thus building maturity and character. The ability to work as part of a team, to take orders and respond accordingly, and to eventually to lead others requires among other attributes: good communication and listening skills, effective interpersonal skills, overcoming challenges, and utilising initiative, drive and motivation in oneself and others. Wilderness experiences can develop these qualities within individuals.

These excursions are also an opportunity for self-learning, introducing children to a place where external distractions such as noise, pollution, peer pressure, family conflict, inter-personal relationship issues, etc. pale into insignificance. The wonders of tranquillity, raw and uncontaminated nature and internal and external ‘space’ can facilitate a connection with one's inner self. In such environments, individuals can learn to appreciate nature and its resources, understand the importance of conservation and sustainability, and be aware of the finely balanced relationship between humanity and the sensitive ecosystem of our planet.

Hampi

This year two groups of children and adults, about 15 in each group, visited Ecodaya in Hampi, Karnataka. We chose to see field trips as an important and indispensible part of TLC's yearly program. The trip to Hampi offered many situations for work on collaboration, trust, teamwork, independence, perseverance, trying new things, pushing one's boundaries, creativity, patience and much more. These kinds of learning opportunities, together with the closeness that develops between the individuals on the trip, and the discovery of new places in India, make the trips a valuable educational experience.

Each group spent just under two weeks in Ecodaya, experiencing sleeping outdoors in caves, eating and appreciating a simple vegan diet, silence, and going for long walks exploring the rocky terrain. Ecodaya is situated on an island, with the Tungabhadra River running on either side of it. The river offered many learning opportunities: understanding the flow of currents, their strength, the water's power to form the rocks it flows though, wildlife in and around it, and of course endless swimming.

Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site, having been the largest city in the world during its time, the former capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. An outing to visit the ancient temples and monuments took us back in history, viewing the ruins from the top of a high hill. It also gave insight in the stories of the Ramayana, being Hanuman's home, as well as bearing carvings and inscriptions telling its story.

The trip offered a stopover in Bangalore, where we visited the wonderful Science and Technology Museum, and a big city experience.

Travelling long distance by train, bus and van also gave the children an opportunity to experience India, the size of the country, its richness in people and places.



The Beach Walk – an account by Johnny Fertile

The best way to appreciate our 5-beach trek is to see it through X's (12-year-old) eyes. For him, the best part of the overnight train trip from Pondi to Mangalore was the odd-bods he befriended on the way – the Hijaris, the beggar in a dress, the man from his planet to whom he gave 50 rupees (“money problem”). Then, when we finally camped on the first beach with a tantalizing island almost within reach, X managed to immediately get his fishing tackle in a huge tangle. (The best part is that the passing fishermen are so adept at disentangling lines!)

We came around the first headland the next morning and there was such a perfect shaded stone platform with a long shallow beach below that we couldn’t see any good reason to go any further. Also perfect rocks for fishing, but just as X had a perfect Banjiram hooked for our dinner, blow me down if a giant crab didn’t snap his line and get off with his catch!

As we walked those 5 idyllic beaches, we couldn’t help but be grateful that the small fishing villages we did cross were Muslim, so no meandering drunks or broken glass…

The main problem for X was that we slept on the beach – he couldn’t abide sand in his sleeping bag. The best thing though, was that he could sleep equally well standing up!

There’s no need to mention the athletic routine of back-bending, somersaulting and deep breathing that Y seemed to think was an essential part of staying alive… including a sort of convoluted foetal position in order to sleep when Z stole his bedding.

Just fabulous in the end, we walked the beaches (up to 10km) at night and camped on the shaded headlands by day. We lived principally on green coco nuts and fish … and tea.

After 5 days we arrived at the estuary before Golkana and were just about to take a ferry across, when someone suggested the local bus to Golkana railway. Shame really, because we were looking forward to the water crossing and determined that next time we’d arrange for a few boats and extend the adventure into the backwater.

Nature Explorations

In our attempt to use the larger community of Auroville as our classroom, the children chose to spend time in Pitchandikulam, Fertile or the Forest Exploration activity.

Pitchandikulam is a rich and diverse environment where the children are able to absorb a lot about our natural habitat by simply immersing themselves in it in a largely unstructured and explorative, hands-on way. A butterfly project was also facilitated whereby the children learned about the different local butterfly species and created a butterfly memory game.

During the afternoons in Fertile Forest the children explored leatherwork and hot wax sculpture, and the Fertile Foundry was established. This was in addition to their free exploration of the forest and Fertile’s carpentry workshop.

The Forest Exploration activity was a group that explored the Auroville forests and bioregion on cycle. During the course of the year we explored more than 15 different locations in and around Auroville.

Building a Supportive Learning environment

As the observation came that some of our children needed specific support in areas of learning and/or behavior, we developed an environment to foster this “supportive learning”. Two of the TLC teachers joined the yearlong Supportive Learning Course offered by the Teachers' Center, to provide us with more support and knowledge.

Simultaneously, within TLC “supportive teams” were formed around specific children. Facilitators (according to the child's needs) together with parents, formed a caring circle where information, advice, support and mentoring were shared to maximize the learning opportunities for students both at school and at home, since learning happens not only 'on campus' but throughout life itself.

We aim to form strong relationships between students, facilitators and parents, understanding that no learning can happen without a safe environment that cherishes self-esteem. Students will be better served when we know them well and understand their needs, interests and aspirations.

To give direct support to these students we have developed a range of strategies including: direct instruction, one-on-one facilitation, facilitated presence in group activities, customized materials, assessment of progress, sessions with special needs professionals, and technology-assisted strategies through customized apps. These cover areas such as social integration, behavior, language and communication, literacy, and numeracy.

Next year...

In the coming academic year we will welcome 6 additional students into our younger groups. We aim to implement a new learning system for the older groups which will include several hours of “independent study” each day, where the children will have the opportunity to deepen their learning, allowing each child to work at his/her level and pace and allowing for individual interests and research. With such a program the child becomes an active learner, a driver of his/her learning process.

In addition, we aspire to inaugurate our new Base Camp kitchen, where children and adult teams will prepare dishes to supplement our daily lunches and snacks. Our kitchen garden in Base Camp, cultivated and nurtured by TLC’s children and adults, will support the cooking project with a ready supply of seasonal fruits and vegetables.

We are grateful for an enriching and challenging past year and look forward to the coming year with joy and curiosity.


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